From Jose Mourinho’s ‘earful’ to the Juventus faithful to Raheem Sterling’s spectacle of a ‘penalty’, the fourth round of group stage fixtures in the UEFA Champions League didn’t pass us by quietly. Individual shenanigans aside, the last two nights of action also decided the first qualifying berth for the Round of 16, while providing some potentially pivotal results as far as knockout hopes are concerned.
New Coming for Mourinho’s United?
Let the antics after the final whistle not alter what transpired – the result in Turin on Wednesday, 7 November, was the biggest win in the Jose Mourinho era at Old Trafford. Given Manchester United’s woeful start to the season, any kind of victory against any top opponent would count high up in the books of the Red Devils’ faithful, but let two numbers put things in perspective.
Across competitions, Juventus had tasted defeat just once at home in the last five seasons. In Champions League group stage ties in Turin since 2003, the Bianconeri had been upstaged just once in 34 matches.
When Cristiano Ronaldo strutted his stuff (footballing, and otherwise) with 25 minutes left to play, it appeared as if the boy who shot to superstardom at United a decade ago had cast a nail into his former employers’ coffin. But dislike them, and him as you may, but there has been a slow-but-sure rediscovery of lost ‘mojo’ for Mourinho’s Man Utd in recent weeks.
Late turnarounds in dramatic finishes against Newcastle United and Bournemouth in the Premier League may not have garnered enough awe and eyes given the quality of opposition, but for perhaps the first time in the post-Ferguson era – and certainly the first since Mourinho took over the reigns in 2016 – United’s revered, and feared, bouncebackability has been rearing its head back. And the workman-like assembly of the Portuguese tactician, aided in no small part by his change of personnel with the backs to the wall, could not have chosen a better stage, or a bigger opponent, to show that ‘squeaky bum time’ is back.
United didn’t just turn things around in the dying moments against a team that just doesn’t lose with the world watching (this was Juventus’ first defeat of the season, in their 15th game) – they bolstered their hopes of progress in the competition. Victory in their group finale at Valencia will put them in the last-16, and they might not even need to wait until then if the next round of results, on 27 November, works in their favour.
It also sets them up nicely for Derby Day in Manchester on Sunday, 11 November.
Man City Fearful, Sterling (Makes Us) Tearful
Sterling trips in the box and Jesus converts from the spot. pic.twitter.com/lE9dK7L71I— Goal (@goal) November 7, 2018
The worst Sterling fall since Brexit.
Okay, let’s not be too harsh on Raheem Sterling – he didn’t appeal for a penalty after stubbing his toe and falling to the ground, and he readily apologised to both the referee and Shakhtar Donetsk immediately after the match. But it gave us a candidate for worst decision of the year – nay, decade – and inadvertently took the attention away from a scary display from the scariest team in Europe.
Pep Guardiola may well be sniggering in the confines of his office, because the world audience may have just ignored a resounding performance in light of one dubious moment. Shakhtar are proven commodities in the Champions League, the Ukrainians notorious for their banana-peel adventures in front of English opposition. City’s 3-0 win in Donetsk, in October, was impressive enough; by doubling that scoreline at the Etihad, while resting key players ahead of the Manchester Derby, the Premier League champions have announced their credentials in Europe. If at all that was needed.
A win in France over Lyon in three weeks’ time will assure top spot in Group F.
Reds Red-Faced, Group C Turns ‘Group of Death’...
Two points separating four teams with two matches out of six left to play. Group C had the makings of a ‘Group of Death’ through its three established forces, but Red Star Belgrade’s (or Crvena Zvezda, as they’re called in Serbia) shock win over Liverpool means it has exploded into something extraordinary.
Despite 80% second-half possession, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds were at the receiving end of a 2-0 scoreline in the Serbian capital on Tuesday, 6 November. Simultaneously, Napoli and Paris St-Germain were playing out their second draw in as many weeks. As a result, last season’s runners-up find their task cut out heading into the final two rounds of fixtures – a scenario well avoidable before they boarded their flight to Belgrade.
A visit to Paris now awaits Liverpool this month-end, followed by a potential knockout against Napoli at Anfield to conclude the group stage. Meanwhile, Red Star – who hadn’t competed in the Champions League in its present format prior to this season – can spill more ignominy on each of the more-fancied clubs in Group C by gaining any points out of their remaining games.
It’s all coming together quite nicely, unless your loyalties lie in the Red half of Merseyside.
...and Group B Isn’t Dead, Just Yet
With 78 minutes played in Tottenham Hotspur’s Group B tie against PSV Eindhoven, the North Londoners appeared headed towards a rock-bottom finish, one that wouldn’t even result in relegation to the Europa League. By the time the final whistle was blown, Spurs had their Round of 16 qualification fate back in their hands.
Even after Harry Kane’s dramatic double at the death at Wembley, Mauricio Pochettino’s side face a tall order: defeat Inter Milan in London on 28 November, and follow it up by at least matching the Italians’ outcome against PSV when they face Barcelona in Spain two weeks later.
Tottenham’s late revival would have borne even greater joy if not for a simultaneous finishing high for Inter, who took one point from Barcelona after the Catalans seemed to have nicked a win at San Siro.
Barca have ensured progression, but Inter’s seeming assurance of a first knockout berth in six years isn’t quite as certain now.
Solari Makes Real the Real Deal Again
Alright, so it was only Viktoria Plzen. But for a team which had found the net just four times in its last seven matches before the sudden appointment of its ‘B’ coach to the highest office, this was a rediscovery of self.
In a flourishing first half closer to their three-time defending European champions ilk, Real Madrid distanced themselves from the trials and tribulations of the over-before-it-began Julen Lopetegui era.
Deeper-lying issues, of course, do not disappear with one good outing. But as Karim Benzema (twice), Casemiro, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos (in the second half) scored in Czech Republic, a collective sigh of relief perhaps reverberated around the offices of Florentino Perez.
It will now take a shock greater than Real not scoring for four matches in a row for the holders to not be in the knockout stages.
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